When he went to sea as a teenager, Joseph Alfred Heenan could barely have imagined he would chase German enemy ships in the Indian ocean, serve in two world wars and be honoured by his King .
According to his son, Mike, Joseph Alfred also fired the rockets that signalled the start of the Arab Revolt; became close to Lawrence of Arabia and mingled with celebrities as they crossed the Transatlantic on the world’s largest liner.
By any stretch of the imagination his was an eventful life. The problem is, as always with genealogical research, separating the facts from the fiction.
It’s taken me months to try and discover how much truth there is in what’s been written about this man.
Let’s begin at the beginning.
A Life At Sea
Joseph Alfred Heenan was born in 1892 in Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland. He was the second of five children born to SAMUEL HEENAN, a journalist, and JANE HEENAN (nee SCOTT). The family subsequently moved to Wavertree, a suburb of Liverpool, Lancashire where his father became Secretary to a temperance society.
In a testimonial published by Mike Heenan in 2009, Joseph Alfred went to sea in 1907 (when he was 15 years old), on a barque called the Lynton. He was said to have considered these years “among the happiest in his life” although he almost lost his life in a storm which lasted six weeks. With the barque he sailed around the world ten times, rounding Cape Horn six times. This was a four-masted steel barque built in Liverpool in 1894 that was said to have been one of the most handsome barques built on the Mersey.
During the time he was supposedly on the ship, the Lynton visited Cuba, Peru, Australia and Chile. However there are no records yet available on line that provide the names of any crew members.
What we do know is that Joseph Alfred made a significant change in 1911, moving away from sailing ships to steamships and entering into the Royal Naval Reserve. By February 1912, he was qualified to serve as a second mate,
1911 saw a change of direction with a move away from sailing ships to steamships and entry into the Royal Naval Reserve. By February 1912, he was qualified to serve as a second mate and the following year, in June 1913, he progressed further being awarded a Certificate of Competency as a first mate.
The Call To Arms
But then came World War 1 and an even bigger change in his naval experience.
By August 1914 he was serving aboard a ship called Fox. In June 1915 he was promoted to the rank of Sub Lieutenant and described as “a very keen officer”. He was promoted again to Lieutenant on 7 May 1917. During those years the ship was deployed in the East Indies, (1914) ; East Africa and Egypt (1915-17) and the Red Sea 1917-18.
In the early years of the war the ship was mostly employed on patrol duties to protect the Suez Canal. The ship’s log indicates it was a relatively uneventful period until 26 February 1916 when a landing party came under fire in the town of Akaba. The ship opened fire and landed a party of seamen and marines to attack the Turkish trenches.
Mike Heenan records of this period in his father’s life:
In 1915 he helped in the defence of the Suez Canal and acted as liaison with T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) during the early phases of the Arab Revolt. As First Officer of HMS Fox, it was Heenan who fired two ship-board rockets which signalled the beginning of the Arab Revolt. Although he found Lawrence difficult to work with, they became friends during the time that the Royal Navy was able to support the revolt.
There is as yet no record that supports this account. The Fox was certainly engaged in hostilities to support Arab troops. In 1916 they were engaged in a joint operation with another ship, opening fire on Turkish positions at government offices, customs and officers quarters as part of a campaign to capture Kunfidah.
I’m not suggesting the information has been falsified, simply that I’ve found direct evidence as yet.
There are however two log entries which refer to Joseph Alfred.
On 14 May 1916 while at Loheiya (a coastal town in Yemen), the captain records:
7.30am: Lieutenant Heenan & five hands proceed in launch KAMARAN to patrol Northwards
The second mention is on 16 July 1917 when the log records:
9.15pm: Port watch left ship under Lieutenant Heenan RNR for Deolali [Deolali was an army transit camp, used as a sailors’ home in WW1. It is the source of the phrase ‘to go doolally’, meaning to lose one’s mind]
Towards the end of the war, Joseph Arthur Heenan transferred to HMS Repulse, a Renown-class battlecruiser, and was present at the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow on 21 November 2018.
Sailing the Transatlantic
His service during World War 1 resulted in the award of the Star, the Victory Medal and the British War Medal
After the war, Joseph Alfred Heenan made another switch in his career, embarking on a role in the commercial world of transatlantic liners as an employee of the White Star Line. His son Michael describes him as employed by that company from 1919 to 1930, sailing on the Majestic which was the largest liner in the world. There said Michael: “He mingled with celebrities and met his future wife. SARAH GLYNNE HOWARD”
Joseph Alfred served on a number of the White Star line ships, always as fourth or fifth mate (also known as fourth, fifth officer). He was indeed on the Majestic between 1922 and 1923, making the transatlantic crossing from Southampton to New York more than 10 times in 1923.
At the time the shipping line was operating a weekly service from Southampton to New York, via Cherbourg, with its three flagship vessels – the Majestic, the Homeric and the Olympic. Once arrived at New York, its 900 plus crew had only a few days to get the ship ready and provisioned before making the return crossing.
Passengers were treated to luxury and elegance for the five to six days it took to make the crossing. In a 1922 brochure the company described the Majestic thus:
As the world’s largest ship, the Majestic has a claim to distinction apart even from that of her celebrated associates, while the proportions and elegance of her passenger accommodations are in consonance with her size and dignity.
Majestic is 956 feet long, zoo feet broad and 102 feet deep, with nine decks, 1,245 staterooms and capacity for 4,100 passengers.
Photographs of the ship’s interior do give the impression of comfort and luxury, at least for the first and second class passengers.
Did Joseph Alfred really mingle with celebrities? Some undoubtedly used the ship because of its claim to distinction as the world’s largest ship at that time. As an officer, he would have been expected to represent the White Star line in social engagements on board, like the Captain’s reception and drinks parties. So its highly conceivable to got to talk to some extremely wealthy people.
Did he meet his future wife during one of those voyages? So far I’ve not found her on any of the passenger records. All I’ve discovered about Sarah Gwynne Howard is that she was born the daughter of a clergyman in Middlesex County, Ontario in 1899.
To Canada And War Again
In 1930 Joseph Alfred Heenan underwent another transformation in his professional life, beginning employment with the Canadian Steamship Company as a master mariner.
Sometime between 1932 and 1935 he married, taking his wife to meet his family at their new residence in Lyndhurst, Hampshire in 1935. By the time they returned to Canada in 1936 it was with a three month old daughter Rosemary. they went on to have one more child – JOSEPH MICHAEL HOWARD HEENAN (known as Mike) – who was born on 28 Sept 1942 in Montreal.
Once more war disrupted his life.
As a member of the Canadian Naval Reserve , Joseph Alfred was called up early, He initially had a role with the National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa but on 15 September 1942 he was given command of a newly commissioned support vessel, HMCS Provider.
His remit was further expanded when he was given command of a flotilla of Fairmile motor launches, some 80 vessels in total, with a remit to protect shipping in the Gulf of St Lawrence. He was responsible for for training, maintenance and operations of the Fairmiles along the east coast.
His service gained him the OBE. The citation in the London Gazette of 1 January 1945 reads:
For outstanding service in organising the training and operation of the coastal forces of Canada into an efficient and confident weapon of defence and offence.
After the war Joseph Alfred worked on several government commissions and boards in Canada before becoming an advisor for a large Ottawa law firm. In 1974 he was awarded the Silver Medallion by the Naval Officers’ Association of Canada in recognition of his services to shipping and the naval forces of Canada.
Joseph Alfred Heenan died in Ottawa on 11 May, 1985, age 93. He was buried at Beechwood Cemetery, Ottawa, Ontario.
Government Registration Office; Registration births index England and Wales
Heenan, Mike: Joseph Alfred Heenan, a Canadian hero; True North Perspective; 2009 https://www.truenorthperspective.com/archives/June_09/June_26/heenan.html
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London; UK and Ireland, Masters and Mates Certificates, 1850-1927; Entry for Joseph Alfred Heenan; (ancestry.com)
British Navy Lists; Marineschule Mürwick, Mürwik Flensburg, Germany; Peter Singlehurst. Entry in Navy Lists, 1888-1970 database at ancestry.com
Ontario Birth Index 1860-1920 database at findmypast.co.uk
Beechwood Cemetery, Ottawa, Ottawa Municipality, Ontario, Canada, MEMORIAL ID 178755068 Source Find a Grave